Lost amidst the grumbling about Brian VanGorder‘s defense, the complexity of his scheme, and the wonders if it’s too much for a student-athlete, was the fact that the unit made some very nice improvements in 2015.
The Irish shut down the option, slowing the greatest Navy triggerman since Roger Staubach. They were the first fist to the face of a Georgia Tech team that went into free-fall after losing in South Bend. And when teams tried to go up-tempo on the Irish like North Carolina did with great success in 2014, VanGorder’s defense handled the pressure without struggle.
In an offseason where the defense was rebranded “likable and learnable,” Notre Dame’s coaching staff also likely went to work making sure that the tagline wasn’t going to serve as a punchline.
Knowing that they were tasked with breaking in an almost entirely new depth chart, after spending last offseason focused on option preparation and slowing down the up-tempo schemes, this year’s focus was likely turned inward—reexamining every one of the team’s teaching points with hopes that a clarified message will make the mental lapses and blown coverages disappear.
Did it work? We’ll get our first progress report on Sunday night.
Notre Dame’s rebuilt defense will face a new Texas scheme that incorporates spread and speed elements. And while there are legitimate questions as to how quickly the Longhorns can install and efficiently run Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo, spread attack, Kelly expects to see play volume coming at the Irish similar to the one that put the Irish on their heels in 2014.
“I mean, it’s fast. This is going to be North Carolina fast,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is a fast, fast tempo. We’ve worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they’re going to see.”
One other reason for optimism is the depth the Irish bring with them to Austin. Last season’s defensive lapses seemed to coincide with a lack of depth—taking away one of the main strategic benefits of VanGorder’s multiple-look, attacking system.
Certainly, the loss of Max Redfield forces VanGorder to pivot in the secondary. But the installation of Avery Sebastian (at least initially) over Devin Studstill puts in action the coaching point that Kelly and VanGorder stressed this offseason, consistency and assignment-correct football over talent, however promising.
Starting lineup aside, if there’s good reason to believe in the Irish defense, it’s mostly that they’ll have all hands on deck, with only Jay Hayes moderately hampered by an injury. They’ll also bring with them a handful of freshmen—including edge players Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara—two players most had pegged for a redshirt.
“We think they’ve got some skills that can help us in pass rush,” Kelly said.
Getting to the quarterback will be a key to the season. Many expect vaunted freshman Daelin Hayes to also help off the edge. The five-star recruit was on campus for spring drills, but recovering from shoulder surgery, the latest challenge that kept Hayes off the field more often than on it during his high school football career. That leaves Kelly keeping things simple for his talented pass rusher.
“Daelin hasn’t played a lot of football over the last year and a half. So settle into the game, get lined up right. Don’t jump offsides. Put your jersey on the right way,” Kelly said. “We’re not asking him to change the complexion of the game, but just to get into the flow of the game. And I think if he does a good job of settling down and getting into the flow of the game, I think he’ll have some success.”
You don’t replace a linebacker like Jaylon Smith. The front four will miss a competitor like Sheldon Day. And KeiVarae’s moxie needs to be replaced.
And even if it’s difficult to count on young players until you see them do it when the lights go on, there’s good reason that Kelly and VanGorder are confident that Year Three will continue to move the Irish defense forward—even after suffering the talent drain.
Sunday night, we’ll see if they were right.
For more on Notre Dame’s defense and a preview of what to expect when the Irish head to Austin, former team captain and MVP Joe Schmidt joined John Walters and I to talk about the weekend and the season head.
Welcome back. Football is finally here.
2016 comes in with a roar, as Notre Dame’s new season begins with a spotlight directly on Brian Kelly’s program, a primetime date with another traditional power, as the Irish head to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns. A year after embarrassing Texas and landing an early-round knockout in the season opener, Charlie Strong’s third team—still young, but growing more talented by the year—looks to avenge the low-point of a challenging, five-win season.
Joining us again is Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation. In a busy week with plenty of action heading into Sunday, he was kind enough to get us ready for the big game.
Let’s start big picture: What’s the feeling heading into the season? Optimism? Dread? Uncertainty? In year three of the rebuild, do you have a feeling at the moment of what constitutes a successful season?
I think the feeling heading into the season is a mix of optimism with some lurking dread — there’s so much young talent on this team and an exciting new offense, but there are still areas of concern and an extremely difficult schedule looming, especially to start the season.
Given the team’s previous inconsistencies, there’s also a lot of uncertainty, which makes it hard to predict how to season is going to play out.
Beyond a purely holistic evaluation of improvement, a successful season would need to include at least seven wins, but more likely eight to ensure that Strong comes back for his fourth season. Any measurement of a successful season includes the stipulation that the Longhorns stop getting blown out so often.
That all but leads us into the quarterbacks. Senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele continue to share first-team reps and Charlie Strong says he “kind of” knows what he wants to do. Is there a world where both guys don’t play against Notre Dame? Can you give us the cliff notes on the difference between these two quarterbacks? And how quickly do you expect this job to become Buechele’s?
How has the transition gone to new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert? Last year, Notre Dame shut down the Longhorn offense and it cost coordinator Shawn Watson his job. Heading into the season, does the spread fit this personnel better?
Notre Dame certainly made some preseason news with it’s eventful evening that ended with six arrests and the dismissal of Max Redfield. How has the offseason / preseason treated the Longhorns? It looks like a few injuries have hit the starting lineup. Will Texas be at full strength when the Irish come to town?
Charlie Strong has hung his hat on his defensive reputation. But last year, the Longhorns were soft against the run—and that looks like another weakness considering the attrition on the defensive line. Is that the weak spot of this defense? Against what looks like the strength of Notre Dame’s offense, do you see this being the matchup to watch?
With the return of only three scholarship defensive tackles, the run defense will once again be a concern for Texas, though improved play at defensive end and linebacker should relieve some pressure there. One major question is whether Strong opts to change his preferred defensive approach — he typically likes to play odd fronts with coverage behind it designed to disallow big plays, but the 2016 Longhorns defense may need to be more aggressive in committing to even fronts that are less likely to allow so much running room for opposing backs.
How big of a game is this? Two traditional powers, a year after an embarrassing loss and a Sunday evening time slot that’ll have the entire college football world watching. It doesn’t “matter” when it comes to conference play, but how is this one being viewed?
The Irish are three-point road favorites, a surprising number when you consider how this went last year, but not when you think of how Notre Dame struggled on the road, the talent Texas has coming back and the type of atmosphere they’ll face.
How do you see this one going? Or if you’re not inclined to make a pick, give me one or two factors that’ll determine whether Texas starts their season with a win or the Irish leave Austin with a victory.
Honestly, I don’t have any idea how the game is going to go and I don’t think that Strong or his staff have any idea, either. There are simply too many young players and too many questions to answer to be able to predict the outcome with any confidence.
Forced to make a prediction, I think Notre Dame wins in a game that is much closer than last season’s blowout.
Brian Kelly hasn’t decided on a quarterback. But he has decided on a free safety. Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian will get the start over true freshman Devin Studstill Kelly announced, giving the Irish a veteran presence on the back line.
Kelly made the decision to go with Sebastian, the former Cal safety back with the program and on the field after earning a medical redshirt in 2015 when he was injured against the Longhorns in the opener. And a strong camp—combined with Studstill returning from a lingering hamstring injury—helped Kelly made the decisions to tap the veteran as the teams starter at safety.
“Devin was a little behind with his hamstring,” Kelly said. “But certainly you want to put veterans on the field, if you can. I think if Devin was clearly ahead of Sebastian, we’d have Devin on the field over Sebastian. But Sebastian’s had a good camp. He’s been really rock solid.”
Positional fit is the next issue. Pairing Sebastian with Tranquill puts two in-the-box safeties on the field at the same time, neither at their best when asked to cover in the open field. But as Texas breaks in a freshman quarterback and a veteran whose best trait is running the football, it’s clear that making sure the defense is fundamentally sound is more important than someone best suited physically for the job.
“What we’ve seen and what we can evaluate is a consistent performer. He’s assignment correct,” Kelly said of Sebastian. “He makes very few errors, and that’s what we like. We have two performers back there in Tranquill and Sebastian that are assignment correct.”
It may have surprised some, but Te’von Coney and Kevin Stepherson were listen in the official two-deep for the Texas game. Kelly said that all four players remaining from the incident in Fulton County were available to him—though he did say that the university’s disciplinary arm will have their own say.
But Kelly’s decision comes not necessarily because of anything he’s decided, but rather the athletic department’s disciplinary policy on first-time offenders for a drug violation like marijuana.
“Throughout our entire athletic program, your first time is an educational process. In other words, counseling and education,” Kelly explained. “Then you enter into that track program that you could have random drug testing.
“So it’s not just football. It’s the entire athletic department. And our whole department is set up that way. I don’t know how other programs are, but we certainly consult and look at other like schools. And I’m confident to say that most if not all are pretty much the same.”
If the depth chart holds true on Sunday night, the following players will be earning their first start at their respective position:
Entering his seventh season in South Bend, Brian Kelly is on the most stable footing of his career. In lockstep with his bosses Jack Swarbrick and Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly has spent the better part of his time at Notre Dame building a program to his specifications, granted unprecedented control and resources as the coach and administration continue to evolve a football program that serves as the university’s outward identity.
That’s what makes the 2016 season so fascinating.
Because for as comfortable as Kelly has become in a job that hasn’t seen anything close to comfort since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, he’s got his hands full this season. His roster is turning over more high-end talent than any team since Holtz and Vinny Cerrato were stocking the pond, and he’s also attempting to upend conventional football wisdom as he juggles two quarterbacks.
Add to that a rebuilt defense and untested talent at several key positions, this type of high wire act is what gets coaches a bronze statue or a For Sale sign in their front lawn.
Having already faced an off-field mogul that cost him his starting free safety, Kelly and his coaching staff will spend the week going through final preparations before stress-testing his young team in front of 100,000 fans.
With the goal still a berth in the College Football Playoff, here are five things we’ll learn this season.
No coach is better qualified to juggle multiple quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean it’ll work.
In DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks he handpicked. They’ve both showed flashes of brilliance on the field, character and resolve off of it, and the type of competitive nature that the head coach finds so vitally important at every spot on his roster.
Now he’s asking both quarterbacks to trust him as he tries to bring out the best of both players.
“They understand that my decisions are based upon what’s best for Notre Dame football, and not necessarily what’s in their best interest,” Kelly said after announcing that both would play.
“There’s always going to be that struggle with the individual versus the team. They clearly understand that team is most important and winning and beating Texas is more important than how they feel about the current situation.”
Those feelings struggled to stay beneath the surface on Media Day, when both quarterbacks answered question after question—often times the same one—from reporters roaming the room and looking for a quote.
But more important than anything Kizer or Zaire say is how they manage to play when the lights go on. And while we saw Kelly and Mike Denbrock navigate a far more toxic situation with Zaire and Everett Golson when they put together a remarkable game plan to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl, a month of bowl preparation is one thing, a 12-game regular season is another.
Most have forgotten that Kelly’s commitment to a two-quarterback situation was mostly framed through the lens of beating Texas. From there, what they decide to do remains to be seen—especially if one of the quarterbacks separates themselves on the field.
Thumbing his nose at tradition and trying to win with both is a calculated risk. Kelly is capable of pulling it off, but it’s one of the biggest gambles of his time at Notre Dame.
Three seasons in, there’s hope that the defense now fully comprehends Brian VanGorder’s scheme. But can it improve after replacing so much talent?
There is no shortage of postmortems on Brian VanGorder’s 2015 defense. Even with plentiful talent, big plays and maddening inconsistency ruined the Irish season.
Now without Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara, Brian VanGorder is hoping that a younger, less experienced unit can skip past the rookie mistakes—finding a way to absorb and implement a scheme that mentally stressed even the most experienced starters.
Putting all the struggles on VanGorder’s system isn’t fair. Legacy issues and mismatched personnel doomed the group. So did injuries, taking away some of the variables that allow a tactically-brilliant strategist to go from grease-board to gridiron.
Outside of the considerable weight hoisted onto several new shoulders, making sure all eleven defenders are on the same page remains the key to success. So is finding a pass rush.
As Kelly talked early on about making sure this team does the ordinary things extraordinarily well, that message may as well have been aimed solely at his defense, a group that needs to get back to the basic principles of winning football—even if it forces a few weapons to stay holstered.
Can a rebuilt offensive line serve as the identity of Notre Dame’s offense?
Whoever ends up piloting the Irish attack, they’ll do so behind an offensive line that should serve as the identity of the team. Because Harry Hiestand’s rugged group has size, strength and a nasty disposition that should help the team win now—especially as the passing game finds its footing.
With Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson perhaps the strongest 1-2 punch in college football, dictating terms will be a necessity. So will breaking in three new starters, with Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Alex Bars getting no warmup before they operate in a very hostile environment.
Coming off a breakthrough season running the football, there’s talent in the backfield and two quarterbacks capable of executing the zone-read attack. But without Will Fuller keeping safeties honest and receiving depth to keep secondaries occupied, it will be much rougher sledding in the trenches.
That’s where McGlinchey and Nelson come into play. Because even if everybody in the stadium knows where the Irish are going on 3rd-and-2, it’ll be up to this offensive line to pave the way, excelling in predictable downs and distances and pushing opponents around even when the numbers make things difficult.
Dominance can come in many forms. Last year’s offense found that ability with the highest yard-per-play total in the school’s modern history. That’s not likely in the cards this season, making it even more important that the Irish control the game in the trenches.
Can freshman Devin Studstill be Notre Dame’s last line of defense?
Max Redfield’s dismissal was the final disappointing chapter in a collegiate career that will long be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Asked to be Notre Dame’s last line of defense—to serve as the nerve-center of the secondary—Redfield instead served as the ringleader to the most maddening, inexplicable preseason decision in recent memory, bringing guns and drugs and Notre Dame football into the same sentence, all too good of a reason for Kelly to pull the chute on a tenure that seemed like hard work on even the best days.
In his place, freshman Devin Studstill makes his first start. Matched up against a Texas offense that’ll need big plays (and maybe even a little broken coverage) to find its footing, Kelly puts a key job on the shoulders of an early-enrollee freshman, a safety who actually took a final look at playing for the Longhorns before heading to South Bend.
So for all the optimism that’s followed Studstill from the recruiting process, through spring drills and into fall camp, Kelly’s not unaware of the circumstances his young free safety will face.
“We’ll have a true freshman, on the road, playing against a talented team,” Kelly said through gritted teeth. “Devin is a kid that has a lot of talent. He’s a very confident player. But we’ll all be looking at it like you will be.
“He’s a pretty talented player. He’s confident. He had a pretty good spring game. He’s got some experience now after the spring. But we’ll have to play a few guys, I don’t think he’s going to go out there and play every snap.”
Behind him is where things get murky. There’s sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, long on experience but built like a strong safety. Freshman Jalen Elliott has earned praise as well, but will be playing in his first college game as well. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta earned mention, but isn’t the athletic matchup you want with Texas’ receiving corps.
So that leaves Studstill to learn on the job. And at a position that’s seemed difficult to fill since Harrison Smith roamed the secondary, that’s a lot of pressure on a freshman.
With leadership still a work in progress, can this team grow—and win—while finding its identity?
Naming four captains after an embarrassing weekend found six players posing for mug shots, Brian Kelly’s concerns about player leadership found their way to the forefront before his young team even played a game. But there’s a silver lining in that embarrassing dust-up. Namely, the Irish stubbed their toe before it could cost them anything more than a starting safety and a week of headlines.
Kelly knows that this team will be a work in progress. That makes the key to this season winning while still figuring things out. If you’re wondering why he was so willing to play both quarterbacks, it ultimately comes down to the fact that he can’t take anything off the table as he looks for the right recipe for success.
Winning the weekend is the only goal that matters. Survive Texas and get home.
Because the cliche that each week is a season in college football holds true for this football team. Winning the week and going onto the next should allow this team to find its footing, doing so against a schedule that only features three true road games and opponents that all deal with major turnover either in the coaching ranks or in key personnel.
One Saturday at a time. (And this weekend, one Sunday, too.) Because even after six seasons, if Kelly takes a step back to look at the road ahead of him, he might understand just how much he’s trying to achieve.